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Essential trust: How healthy skepticism builds trust

“Does this really help students understand Latin?” If it didn’t, I tossed it; a curricular Marie Kondo-ing, writes Latin teacher Abbi Holt. (Getty Images)
“Does this really help students understand Latin?” If it didn’t, I tossed it; a curricular Marie Kondo-ing, writes Latin teacher Abbi Holt. (Getty Images)

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Trust is essential for survival, for relationships, for a civilized society. But trust needs an unexpected ally.

“If you think of trust as an attitude, wherein we’re willing to become vulnerable in relation to other people, skepticism is the backstop,” Sandy Goldberg says. “It’s the thing that we can indulge in when we have concerns that maybe our trust is misplaced.”

Skepticism protects us from gullibility, and manipulation.

But what happens when your skepticism turns into cynicism, or outright disbelief?

Today, On Point: Trust – and the need for healthy skepticism. It’s episode four of our special series Essential trust.


Sanford “Sandy” Goldberg, he teaches philosophy at Northwestern University and the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Jack Beatty, On Point news analyst. (@JackBeattyNPR)

Julia Jordan-Zachery, chair of women, gender, and sexuality studies at Wake Forest University. President of the Association for Ethnic Studies. Author of Shadow Bodies and the forthcoming Black Women and da ’Rona. (@Dr_JZ)

Show Transcript

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: On November 20, 1983, ABC aired a prime time made for TV movie. It was called “The Day After.”

More than 100 million Americans watched it that night. Two-thirds of the total viewing audience in 1983, scared out of their socks by imagined scenes of U.S.-Soviet Nuclear Armageddon blazing on their TVs.

Grotesque mushroom clouds bloomed on screens across the country. Low-fi 80s special effects of irradiated human skeletons flash by. They’re cut together with real scenes of buildings getting instantly incinerated and obliterated by actual US atomic tests from the 40s and 50s. Actor Jason Robards, playing a Kansas doctor, scrambles for his life.

He’s near death by the end. Almost everyone is.

“The Day After” was a major television event. While it did not change history — it was a perfectly timed cultural indicator, whose massive audience included one man, privileged enough to get a sneak preview of the film more than a month before it was broadcast.

On Monday, October 10, 1983, President Ronald Reagan wrote in his diary:

“In the morning at Camp [David], I ran the tape of the movie ABC is running … called “the Day after”… It’s very effective and left me greatly depressed.”

On November 18th, two days before the film hit network TV, Reagan wrote about receiving a military briefing in the Situation Room about the U.S. military’s plan in the event of a real nuclear attack.

“It was a scenario for a sequence of events that could lead to the end of civilization,” Reagan wrote in his diary. “The sequence of events in the briefing paralleled those in the ABC movie. Yet there were still some people at the Pentagon who claimed a nuclear war was ‘winnable.'”

Not that Reagan was working to mothball America’s entire nuclear arsenal. This, after all, was the president who brought about one of the most dramatic military buildups in US history. And above all, he was a canny politician.

In that same November 18th diary entry, Reagan also wrote that Secretary of State George Schultz would go on ABC with Ted Koppel right after the movie’s broadcast. “We know it’s ‘anti-nuke’ propaganda,” Reagan wrote, “But we’re going to take it over and say it shows why we must keep on doing what we’re doing.”

Which is exactly what Schultz did.

However, Reagan, and his counterpart, then Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev, were about to enter a series of closed-door meetings to discuss nuclear arms control.

So in January 1984, a couple of months after “The Day After” aired, Reagan called Russian historian Suzanne Massie to the White House. The President who’d openly referred to the Soviets as “The Evil Empire” had read Massie’s book, “Land of the Firebird: The Beauty of Old Russia.” Reagan wanted to know more.

Suzanne Massie ended up advising the President for more than four years.

In 2014, Suzanne Massie told the public radio program “The World” about one particularly fateful 1986 meeting that took place just before Reagan was to meet Gorbachev for a critically important arms control summit in Iceland.

Trust but verify.

In December 1987, Reagan made the phrase public and instantly iconic, when he and Gorbachev signed the historic Intermediate Range Nuclear Weapons Treaty.

You can’t quite hear it, but at the end there, Reagan goes a bit off mic as he turns and smiles at Gorbachev, and says “I like it.”

And so did the American people.

Because from that moment forward, “Trust but verify” — originally a Russian maxim — became the modern American aphorism for the importance of skepticism.

This is On Point. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti. Today, it’s episode four of our special series: “Essential trust.” Now, “trust but verify” is a politically palatable version of skepticism.

But skepticism’s purist definition is to doubt the truth of something, or philosophically to even believe that certain forms of knowledge are impossible. So what would you say if we argued that healthy skepticism is an important, if unexpected, necessary counterpart to trust? We’re going to turn that question now to Sandy Goldberg. He’s a professor of philosophy at Northwestern University, joins us from Chicago. Professor Goldberg, welcome to End Point.

SANDY GOLDBERG: It’s great to be with you today. Thanks for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: And also with us is Jack Beatty, On Point’s news analyst.

JACK BEATTY: Hello, Meghna.

CHAKRABARTI: So are you still trusting but verifying Jack?

BEATTY: I’m taking aboard that Russian pronunciation. The president sounded convincing.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, tell us a little bit more about that moment in history, because when you and I had been discussing this hour Jack, that trust but verify phrase immediately jumped to my mind is like the perfect example of how skepticism comes into play in global politics.

BEATTY: I mean, people, historians think that Reagan loved the phrase because it was a reassurance to his right wing. That, yes, we would enter into an arms control agreement about nuclear arms in Europe, but we would be very careful to verify it. And even in the 1988 campaign, I think Jack Kemp and other candidates were against this treaty because they didn’t think the verification regime was severe enough. So Reagan was making a very deft domestic political move there.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, so, Professor Goldberg, let me turn to you. Is this not a good example of how a certain caution against gullibility is? One of the reasons why skepticism is an important counterpart to trust?

GOLDBERG: I think it’s a fabulous example. It’s really lovely in many ways. One might doubt whether Reagan really was trusting, but the phrase itself is a lovely one, and it’s a good example of how we can try to combine attitudes of trust with attitudes of skepticism, and they do indeed go together.

CHAKRABARTI: So then how would you define skepticism, first of all, in these broad, let’s call it political terms, and then we’ll get down to the individual level.

GOLDBERG: Well, skepticism as it’s used in ordinary, everyday speech, I would describe as an attitude where you’re not really easily convinced by anything. You refrain from judging. You have high standards of judgment. That’s typically what we mean when we talk about somebody is skeptical, that we mean something about their personality. In philosophy, it’s slightly different. Skepticism actually is if not a school of thought. It’s certainly a doctrine that many people have endorsed or have tried to argue against. And that’s where issues of doubt come in and issues of the impossibility of knowledge come in.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So tell me a little bit more, because I did mention that that radical philosophical strayed a little bit earlier.

GOLDBERG: Right. So it goes back at least in the Western philosophical tradition. It goes back at least to the ancient Greeks, probably even before Socrates and Plato. But the really best early example we have of this is Socrates and Plato, where Socrates is told by the Oracle at Delphi that he is the wisest person alive, and he himself was very, if you like, doubtful that was true.

And so he committed to trying to examine all of his beliefs and all of the beliefs of his fellows in order to determine whether, in fact, the Oracle statement was true. This gave rise to the idea, at least in the Western philosophical tradition, that we have something like an intellectual obligation to examine our beliefs.

And those who examine our beliefs and find them wanting actually are those that we would describe in philosophy as skeptics and those who think that perhaps not only are the actual beliefs that we have now wanting, but any beliefs we could possibly have will not meet with our appropriate standards. Those would be the real skeptics of the day.


CHAKRABARTI: Professor Goldberg, first of all, let me just ask. Can trust and skepticism adequately coexist within the same person? Are they not actually oppositional forces?

GOLDBERG: So it’s a good question. And I would say whatever I’m going to say on this, there is philosophical dispute about virtually everything. I will say, though, I think it’s fair to say, at least I would say that they can exist in the same person, and they may not exist at the same time in the same person.

But it turns out that skepticism has a role to play in individual minds, in the same way that it has a role to play in communities. And my thought is that you need skepticism in order to have a healthy kind of trust, whether in the individual mind or even at the social level.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So, Jack … Professor Goldberg mentioned the word healthy kind of trust. Because I would say that a completely blind trust that doesn’t require any sort of proof or verification, if I can put it that way, essentially is gullibility. And that can be really a negative force in an individual’s life and in the life of a nation. Can’t it?

BEATTY: It certainly can. Freud writes, A group is extraordinarily credulous and open to influence. It has no critical faculties and the improbable does not exist for it. We are living in a time where the improbable does not exist for millions of Americans who are in a trance of trust, a pathology of trust, believing Donald Trump’s big lie.

It turns out that the philosopher of our moment is Groucho Marx in Duck Soup. He says, Who are you going to believe, me or your eyes? Millions of Americans don’t believe their eyes. The improbable does not exist for them. They have forgotten about the verified part of ‘Trust, but verify.’ And they are just in perhaps the most frightening phenomenon in the whole of American history. They believe this big lie.

CHAKRABARTI: So, Professor Goldberg, this is why, and I want to plumb the depths of the tension between skepticism and trust more. Because, you know, in Jack’s example, the very folks he’s talking about would say, well, we are the paragons of skepticism. Because we’re looking for a certain kind of proof for keeping our minds open that there might have been a different outcome to the election despite the proof already given.

GOLDBERG: Yeah, I think that’s right. One of the scary things for me about this present moment is that exactly as you say, magnetic, some of these movements, QAnon as well. I think one of their catchphrases is think for yourself. And what I often point out to students is thinking for yourself is a great thing. When it’s done well and when it’s not done well, it can lead to great problems. And I think that the kinds of things that Jack is talking about are the problems that we’re seeing within American politics today.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, but tell me more about that, because it seems to me that one of the things about the trust skepticism dynamic here is that as we rise in the scale of what we are trusting in, it becomes more risky. Like, I might trust a cashier to give me the proper change, but am I going to trust, you know, a drunk driver to drive appropriately? Or am I going to trust an institution that’s not transparent to behave as it says it will? So the need for skepticism rises as the risk that we undertake, entrusting also rises, does it not?

GOLDBERG: I think that’s right. What you put your finger on very nicely is the need to invest our trust wisely. We need to trust those who are trustworthy, and we need to distrust those who are not trustworthy. And it turns out to be a nontrivial task to figure out who is goes in which bucket. And that’s part of what the area of philosophy that I that I tend to focus on epistemology or the theory of knowledge. This is one of the things that it focuses on how to discern what is true and trustworthy from what is merely apparently true but actually false.

CHAKRABARTI: And so how do you do that?

GOLDBERG: Great question. The simple answer is you get a lot of education. But education is a great stopgap. It’s the kind of thing that puts us in the best position to discern the truth from the false. But I have to say, there is no surefire way that will guarantee you in every single case where you’re trying to make a judgment, that your judgment is true. And that’s unfortunately, that’s just part of the human condition. And that’s one of the reasons why these questions can be so vexing.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So Jack, respond to that. And again, in in the context of the concerns of the gullibility of the credulousness, large scale credulousness that you talked about earlier.

BEATTY: Well, you know, Saint Matthew has this line walk according to the best light you have. But be sure your light be not darkness. That’s the critical thing. Is, you know, the ability to reflect on your own views and to say, well, is this light or is this just the form of ignorance? And it’s the suspension of that critical faculty that has gripped large parts of the Republican Party and people who, in their ordinary day are skeptical about lots of matters.

Essentially put their brains on ice and suspend their minds and say and believe the most improbable against all the evidence, the most improbable lies, because Donald Trump has told them. And so I think that inability of critical thinking to reflect on the grounds of their knowledge, there are no grounds except for his assertion that would make it go away in an instant. But I think what we see is people are putting their identities over the truth.

CHAKRABARTI: So Professor Goldberg would love to hear you respond to that. What do you think?

GOLDBERG: I think a lot of what Jack is saying is true. I agree with it. The one thing I would caution against is — I’m not saying Jack, that you’re guilty of this, but I would caution against a cartoonish understanding of the other side. And the reason I would caution against this has nothing to do with skepticism and trust. It has to do with how we are going to move our way forward as a community.

My worry is if each side lampoons the other side, there’s no way that we’re going to get through this. With that said, I agree entirely with what Jack said at the end. Namely, the foundations that we think that we have, often our foundations are very good. Often, if we reflect on them, we’ll discern that they’re very good. But it can turn out that even for the best right-thinking thinker, sometimes he, she or they will take themselves to be correct when they find out ultimately that they’re not, that is what I’m calling part of the human condition. It’s true for all of us.

CHAKRABARTI: But just to be clear on something here, I feel like what I’m hearing generally is, first of all, an excess of trust is dangerous. An excess of skepticism can also be dangerous because then you tip over into just disbelief. But when we have a healthy balance, though, does skepticism serve as a kind of backstop to mitigate the risks that come with placing our trust in others or placing our trust in institutions?

GOLDBERG: I think the answer is absolutely yes. Give you a little example. So imagine that you have a good friend and you clearly trust this friend. This friend is trustworthy. It’s not as though when you trust your friend, you close your eyes to the possibility that they’re going to do something that is not entirely trustworthy. It’s not that you go out and look for their examples of untrustworthiness, but you’re always alive to the possibility.

That’s a kind of skepticism that’s compatible with trust. And the reason that I think this kind of skepticism actually makes trust healthy is precisely that when I know that you trust me, that leads me to think that I need to live up to the kind of trust that you have in me. And I’m also aware that if I fail to do so, you will pick up on that and I will. I’ll suffer accordingly. That’s part of what it is that makes me as trustworthy as I am, and that’s part of what it is that earns the earns me the right to have your trust.

If it weren’t for that skepticism, I would have much less pressure on me to behave in the ways that you’re relying on me to behave. And that’s why I think skepticism actually is a kind of backstop for trust if you put it that way.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Well, Professor Goldberg and Jack Beatty, hang on here for just a second, because I want to turn the conversation now to why skepticism actually is a very rational form of protection, you know, among certain communities, especially in this country.

So I’d like to invite Julia Jordan-Zachery into the conversation. She’s chair of the Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies Department at Wake Forest University. Welcome to On Point.

JULIA JORDAN-ZACHERY: Thank you. Thank you, Meghna. It’s a pleasure to be here with you all today.

CHAKRABARTI: So, first of all, just tell me how the discussion we’ve been having about skepticism how has that been landing with you so far?

JORDAN-ZACHERY: So I will say that I’m intrigued by the conversation as it’s moving in this beautiful way between the macro and the micro society and the individual. And you know, I’m curious as to how we temper this kind of movement by looking a little deeper at identity, which was an issue that was brought up suggesting that trust sometimes is influenced by identity. So it’s been really intriguing for me to listen.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so tell me more.

JORDAN-ZACHERY: So, you know, if we were to think about particular groups in the U.S. and how they’ve been treated, we have to look at how, for example, the institution of slavery, settler colonialism, etc., influences trust both in the past and how that resonates within particular communities.

And so in part of my research as a political scientist, I talk about Black women’s hesitant hope, which is this interesting combination of both trust and skepticism. And it’s very grounded in data. But how do we understand data? Data is sometimes understood differently depending on the communities that we’re talking about. So that’s what I would like for us to kind of deepen a little bit about when we think about trust and skepticism.

CHAKRABARTI: This is exactly what I was hoping you would bring to the conversation. There are very, very clear reasons. You just listed a bunch of them. Why, you know, significant communities in this country might look upon institutions from a default position of skepticism as racism being a major force in terms of how Black Americans have been treated for centuries. But you also bring up this idea of hesitant hope. Tell me more about that.

JORDAN-ZACHERY: So hesitant hope. I go back to the work of Ida B. Wells Barnett, for example, when she charted and basically archived lynching in the United States. And there was a kind of hope that Ida B. Wells engaged in a kind of hesitant hope. And her hope was that by archiving this, that the history and the legacy of lynching, that the U.S. would somehow change from its ways. But she was also very well aware of the functioning of racism and how that would temper the response of the U.S. political system.

CHAKRABARTI: But then that’s still the impetus for that change, though, still was having to emerge from the communities that had been harmed. I mean, I’m curious about how, if you think at all, that warranted skepticism has encouraged those institutions themselves to change?

JORDAN-ZACHERY: So are you asking me how skepticism could, for example, influence the U.S. political structure to change in response to —

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, I mean, that might be my own form of hesitant hope here, but go ahead.

JORDAN-ZACHERY: I think that turning to the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. Which I think is a really classic example of the blending of hope and skepticism. And when we read the letter from Birmingham Jail, which I think personally and as a political scientist is probably one of the most fundamental pieces written by Martin Luther King Jr. He shows us how he is hoping that skepticism will change the American political structure. And he’s saying, you are asking me to wait. How long am I supposed to wait? And I’m paraphrasing.

And so he’s saying, what are you skeptical about when you are asking me to wait? So he’s turning that skepticism back on these structures and asking them to interrogate data and looking at the individual, but also the individual as part of a collective.

And of course, I can’t speak for Martin Luther King Jr., but what I think he was doing was asking them to interrogate knowledge, which is what skepticism is supposed to allow us to do, to interrogate knowledge by looking at the data, by looking at facts. And so I think that’s a really good example of that.

So interrogate knowledge and one’s own presumed knowledge. So, Professor Goldberg, I would love to hear you reflect on that because it seems to me that … if I’m a true healthy skeptic, I should be skeptical of myself and what I presume to know as well.

GOLDBERG: I think that’s absolutely right. And what Professor Jordan-Zachery said is extremely important. In the history of philosophical discussions of these matters, there has been a tendency to assume that we are all in the same position with respect to the information that we have before us. And that turns out to be a fiction and at times a dangerous fiction. And that’s one of the points that Professor Jordan-Zachery is making.

My colleague, he tragically died last year. My colleague, Charles Mills, used to write about this. And he has a very, very influential book entitled The Racial Contract, where he basically makes clear to the philosophical tradition that unless we recognize that a lot of our theory has been constructed on the basis of certain presumptions and certain privileges that white folks have had over the years, we are not going to understand the full the full spectrum of challenges that we have as a political community.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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